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Government, Politics & Issues

Area Catholics say European scandal rekindles horror of local sex abuse cases

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2010 - News of sexual abuse by European Catholic priests is no surprise to St. Louis Catholics -- even though for eight years many Europeans have talked down to Americans, calling child sexual abuse "an American problem" caused by America's permissive society. As abuse cases were uncovered in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland, the same chorus called abuse "an English-speaking" problem, alluding to British boys' boarding schools.

Still, surprised or not, many St. Louisans call the news from Europe "painful and horrific."

"It makes me mad, sick, and I just don't want my name associated with it," said a woman leaving St. Ambrose Church in the traditionally Italian "Hill" neighborhood Thursday. "And it's in Italy now."

Hearing even the most superficial reports of abuse in Europe is like pulling a scab off a still festering wound, said local Catholics, many of whom did not want their names used.

Memories of the past at St. Cronan's

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"The parishioners are angry, furious, that it is happening again. It brings back pain of old memories," said the Rev. Jerry Kleba, pastor of St. Cronan Church just southeast of Forest Park. In 2002, St. Cronan's was the first parish in the St. Louis Archdiocese to have a priest publicly removed from ministry.

Eight years ago, St. Cronan's parishioners stood in the cold winter rain protesting the abrupt removal of their pastor Joseph Ross for allegations of sex abuse. Ross was their friend, their leader. Parishioners' fury extended to then St. Louis Archbishop Justin Rigali, Bishop Timothy Dolan (his new deputy charged with policing abusive priests and protecting children) and the Post-Dispatch reporters who reported the allegations against Ross. Today Rigali is a cardinal in Philadelphia; Dolan is the New York archbishop.

The attitude of St. Cronan's parishioners changed within weeks as more facts were made public. Today St. Cronan's parishioners are adamant in their support of removing priests with one serious accusation against them.

That swift action is required under the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth," which U.S. bishops hammered out under the watch of the nation's press at its Dallas meeting in June 2002. On that church's steps this Easter, several St. Cronan's members lamented with a parish family that a civil court case pending against Ross has been delayed because the judge assigned to it stepped aside.

"They are mad about that," Kleba said. "All these things bring it back."

St. Cronan's parishioners are also adamant that all parish volunteers, staff and priests have local and state police checks and, if they have lived outside the state recently, have FBI fingerprint checks. Archbishop Robert Carlson is also adamant that all such workers, paid or unpaid, throughout the archdiocese must take a seminar on protecting children and looking for signs of sexual abuse.

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Protecting god's children

American parents generally, not just Catholics, are more attentive to protecting their children from abusive trusted figures, said Terry B. Edelmann, who oversees the 8-year-old, archdiocesan program, Protecting God's Children.

"In the last two years there has been a cultural shift, many young parents expect security across the board, they grew up with it," she said. "They see the value of the programs and appreciate it. It has become normative."

Back in summer 2002 when the St. Louis Archdiocese began the mandatory seminar for all clergy, faculty and volunteers who work with children, including CYC helpers, many took offense, especially those who had been long-time volunteers. No more, she said. They get it.

Any adults in the archdiocese who are seen by children even if they are never alone with them need training because they have a position of trust and authority and might run into a child alone away from the school or church and "might do something to that child," Edelmann said.

Today the archdiocese's free child-protection seminars draw non-Catholics, including public and private school teachers and university students who tutor, she said. The Scouts have their own mandated training.

Edelmann hopes that Europeans experience a similar cultural shift in child protection and clamor for child-protection programs.

Archdiocese's program

The archdiocese's next free program is April 20 at St. John's Mercy Medical Center. Pre-registration is required. 

The program includes two videos. In one, victims tell their tragic stories. Each one explains the impact that abuse had on them. Seminar participants learn what to look for from a video in which child abusers explain how they selected their victims and then manipulated them. 

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"Archbishop Carlson has been very, very direct in support of the project," Edelmann said. He has expressed deep regret that about four decades ago as a fledgling priest he reported to his bishop allegations about an abusing priest but never considered part of his role to report allegations to police. When Carlson speaks of the sex abuse crisis, his eyes go dark with sorrow.

At the Dallas meeting, Carlson was a strong advocate of lay involvement and now has a lay woman chancellor. Since his arrival the archdiocese has taken advantage of a new federal law, the "Adam Walsh" law, that allows religious organizations to fingerprint and run an FBI check on any new volunteers, employees or seminarians who have lived out of state.

"As tragic as the European crisis is, it reminds us not to let our guard down, to remember that we are doing (protection training) for a very important reason and that we must be diligent about it," Edelmann said.

"Sometimes it does take something tragic to make us all do better to protect ourselves," said Edelmann. "When the bridge in Minneapolis fell down, people were checking bridges all over the country for safety. That's what we need here, too." 

Revelations in europe

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Former Catholic school teacher Ann Aubuchon of south St. Louis County is appalled by the recent European revolutions.

"Since the truth is out in Europe, I hope the Vatican will make it worldwide church law to toss out all priests with one credible abuse accusation -- immediately packed up and out of the rectory, out of all ministries."

She is one of several St. Louis Catholics interviewed who said it may be time to reconsider priestly celibacy. Eastern rite Catholics and former Lutheran and Episcopal priests who have become Catholic priests are married.

In the current crisis, Dublin's Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who has called for full disclosure, has given Aubuchon hope. He said, "We have to remember that the truth will set the church free, even if the truth is hard to digest."

So far, Aubuchon also has been impressed by Pope Benedict's efforts since 2002 to rid the church of abusers.

"I thought he was leading us out of this mess," she said. She admired his support of one of her heroes, Archbishop Wilton Gregory (now of Atlanta, formerly of Belleville), who was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops when the Boston Globe began its 2002 revelations of sex abuse. Gregory pushed for and got his fellow U.S. bishops and the Vatican to OK a lay "blue ribbon" oversight board. Supervised by former FBI, it sent out scores of former law enforcement officers to audit American dioceses' compliance with the "Dallas charter" and subsequent canon law for the U.S.

Days before Benedict's installation as pope, Aubuchon was moved by his promise to get "the filth" out of the church, out of the priesthood.

"He took the bishops to the woodshed," she said. "One of the best things he's done as pope is to dispatch Vatican officials for a visitation of every American seminary to audit its cultural mores as well as theological and academic offerings.

"That scared the seminaries and got them to take all this very seriously," she said. "Some seminarians were bounced. Some rectors tossed."

"I am not so worried about his administrative failures in the 1980 -- if in fact he had anything to do with putting that priest (called H. in church documents) into a rectory while he still was in therapy for sex addiction," Aubuchon said. "Back in the day, shrinks all over the world were saying if you could get these pedophiles sober and give them some sex addictive treatment they'd sin no more. Thank God, no one gives such rotten advice now."

A church employee who declined to be identified said Americans don't know much about European codes of law.

"If it is not criminal to hide criminal abusers in some countries, then those bishops need to know it is at least sinful and that they must protect our children," he said. "The church is supposed to have higher standards than secular law anyway."

Several St. Louisans interviewed who declined to be identified said that they hoped that the Vatican will now write new church law to reprimand bishops who refuse to cooperate with child safety and pedophile reporting standards set up in the Dallas charter. Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., has not cooperated with the outside auditors assigned to check his diocese compliance with the "Dallas Charter" and subsequent canon law. He turns 75, the mandatory retirement age in September. Audits have shown that other American bishops refused full cooperation with auditors on select questions.

Many St. Louisans said that European cases and new American cases -- the defiling of deaf children in Wisconsin, for example -- are almost too painful to read because they can see the faces of children they know with similar stories.

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Learning the lessons

News of the European youth being abused "brings all the memories up again, and it's because we have a male-dominated church," said Mary Therese Harrington of south St. Louis County who taught in Catholic schools for 11 years. When she gets together with other retired teachers, clerical sex abuse often comes up. It's an expertise none of them ever expected or certainly wanted. Long before the sexual abuse scandal broke, Harrington used to teach fourth graders Human Sexuality, including a lesson about protecting the children from sex abuse.

"I stressed to the kids that if anyone touched them inappropriately, other than a doctor, they should tell someone and keep talking about it until someone believed them and helped."

She only hopes that her advice helped some kids get away from an abusive parish priest in the parish where she taught.

"When kids were misbehaving and we were really unable to control them, we teachers sent them to the priest for counseling. Now we know that that he was preying on a child," Harrington said. Bryan Kuchar was removed from the priesthood, convicted and served time for abusing a teen.

"I remember that priest saying that some boys were so disrespectful. Yeah, they were not going to go along with his abuse. Now I know what happened to those who were abused, I understand why they suddenly changed."

"As a Catholic school teacher, I knew it was our job to nourish, educated and protect our children and to help them get this wonderful religious education. That is why parents sent them to Catholic schools. Catholics are not sheep; they are educated and they don't just follow what the bishops say. Not anymore."

Like many interviewed for this story, Harrington knows people who have stopped gong to Mass because of the scandal. She remains faithful, active in her parish and in Catholic organizations. She sees the church as her church, the people's church, not "owned" by its flawed leaders.

"I pray to God the church leadership take this abuse seriously," she said. "That's their job to be leaders," adding that they have a moral obligation to protect children. "It seems that children still came last in Europe; safety must be a priority."

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has covered religion for many years and attended the U.S. Cardinal Summit in Rome and the U.S. Catholic bishops meeting in Dallas, both in 2002. T

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